Updated: Nov 22, 2021
November Featured Writer: Kena Tangi Dorsey
Nowadays, with the global and commercial success of African wax prints there has been more access and exposure to so many wonderful African fabrics world-wide. So, quite naturally the opportunity to explore more uses in projects has been extremely exciting for quilters. If you’ve ever seen any type of traditional African story quilts, modern/contemporary, or otherwise, I’m sure that you can attest to how aesthetically pleasing they are. The colors and pattern repeats are truly unique and unpredictable, which is beautiful, but it can make it a little challenging for our conventional eyes to see how to cut and position pieces in our quilts. For us traditional quilters we strive for that cohesion and symmetry. However, this is not always the case when it comes to using African wax print fabrics, which often results in our feeling intimidated because we are not sure how to use them.
However, there is good news! You can use them. You can use African wax prints, or Ankara prints as they are sometimes called, in just about any style of quiltmaking that you can think of and in almost any type of pattern. The trick is, you have to forget about the conventional “quilting rules” that may have you stuck.
Instead try letting the fabric itself speak to you and tell YOU how it wants to be used in a pattern design. For instance, African fabrics like to be the star. They want to be the leading character in the piece. So, let them be. Place them in parts of the quilt where they can really shine and be shown off. Because the prints and patterns are already so bold and graphic the fabric doesn’t always need to be cut in smaller shapes to be pieced together. You can actually do less work and have dramatic results. Try using the larger scale print designs in oversized blocks, or cut them into strips to use in sashings or thick borders. Remember, the fabrics and not the piecing, is the main attraction. In my quilt “Jumpin' Jubilant June ” I created a combination of oversized flying geese blocks and arranged them in a chevron pattern. A plain white Kona cotton was used for the background to help set off the bright reds, yellow and orange colors in the print fabrics.
Another way to showcase the prints in quilts is to surround them with neutral or solid fabrics of any color. This will help draw the eye to the prints while creating a more focused and uniform design in the quilt, as I did in my modern style quilt (design based on a modern quilt by Jackie Gehring and Katie Pedersen), “Wonky African Log Cabin.” For this design, I used neutral creams, beiges, browns and a pop of purple to surround the crazy pieced center of Ankara fabrics.
Something freeing and fun that I like to do when using Ankaras is to pick out an assortment of prints and randomly use them next to each other, the results are so beautiful. What you think might be a clash is actually a wonderfully global or folk art style of quilt. In my quilt entitled “Mudbank,” which uses a variety of light, medium and dark mud cloth prints. I cut the strips in varying widths, sewed them together, and they played very nicely with each other.
If piecing really is your thing, and you love the detail of making blocks from smaller shapes, then rest assured that African wax prints will work even sweeter in patchwork. Using the basic same principle as I did earlier, I pieced together some half square triangles and arranged them in windmill patterns to make my quilt “Starry Nights in Nigeria.” My main color palette for this quilt was deep blues, greens and my favorite color, purple. All Ankara’s except for the solid background. The windmills made of African prints were pieced with a solid lavender purple quilting cotton fabric. The inner border was pieced with squares, and for the outer border, I cut strips from one luxuriously swirling African wax print. For most of the quilts that I use African prints in, I almost always use quilting cottons for the backing and lots of times I will use them for the binding as well. However, you can also find quilting cottons to blend and piece together with your African wax prints as well.
The thing to keep in mind when using quilting cottons, is to think about the tone, scale and value of the fabric. The actual mixing of different colors doesn’t matter as much as matching the tones does. So, in other words, if you are using bright bold colors, then find bright bold quilting cottons, if you are using deeper earthy tones, then try to find quilting cottons to match those tones. Remember, the Ankara’s don’t like to share the limelight, so still pay attention to the scale of print on the quilting cottons and then you should have better luck.
If the quilting cottons are not solids, then try finding a small scale or tone on tone because those are usually going to work better. So in summary, remember there’s really no way to actually know how the colors and patterns are going to work together until you play around and audition them. It may take a little more creativity, but keep trying. You just may stumble across something perfect, and lastly, don’t be afraid to use them. When you buy and use these wonderfully vibrant fabrics you are celebrating Africa!
Kena Tangi Dorsey is a quilt artist, teacher and owner of Kena Quilt Studio.
She lives in Palmdale, CA and specializes in raw-edge appliqué portrait quilts and quilting with African fabrics.
Visit and sign up for her newsletter and online quilting courses on her website at https://kenaquiltstudio.com/
Follow her on social media:
Enjoy this slide show of Kena Tangi Dorsey's works:
Coffee Chat with Kena Tangi Dorsey coming November 22nd!
Coffee Chats with Quilters is a new interview series about the quilters behind the Quilts and Quilt Designs! I interview both hobby quilters and businesses. In this episode I interview Kena Tangi Dorsey! We talk about how she began quilting on stage on Broadway, her love of raw edge applique, African Wax prints, and more!
Visit and sign up for Kena Tangi Dorsey newsletter and online quilting courses on her website at https://kenaquiltstudio.com/
Follow her on social media:
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